Jeremy Heywood, who died in November 2018 at the cruelly young age of fifty-six, was one of the most outstanding British civil servants of recent times. At his memorial service in Westminster Abbey, four prime ministers delivered flowing and affectionate tributes to him. Tony Blair said he was a ‘negotiator of genius’. Gordon Brown said he knew of no public servant who achieved ‘so much in so little time’. David Cameron remarked that there was ‘no-one you would rather have working by your side’. Theresa May described Heywood as ‘the greatest public servant of our time’. For Whitehall correspondents like me, those eulogies came as no surprise.
Heywood’s was not a household name. But, unusually for a civil servant, he spent nearly all of his thirty-year career at the centre of power: first at the Treasury, then Number 10, and for the last six years as Cabinet secretary and head of the civil service. All around him valued his intellectual gifts and his ability to solve knotty problems of governance (hence the title of this book). In two informal conversations I had with him in the final stages of his career, I quickly got the measure of the man: an intelligent and kind Whitehall professional, an impartial but loyal servant of his ministerial masters, a guarantor of the institutions of state.
In 2017, when it became clear that he was in the grip of terminal cancer, his wife, Suzanne, began working with him to record his memoirs. The resulting book, written by his widow, covers a huge sweep of events: Black Wednesday, the 9/11 attacks, the global financial crash of 2008